Many people know that Ray Cook wears many hats in racing. As a driver he has won major Dirt Late Model events such as the Hillbilly 100 and two Show-me 100s. As a promoter he runs three of dirt racing’s top regional series in the Southern Nationals, the Spring Nationals, and the Fall Nationals. And he serves as a track owner of the Tri-County Race Track near his home in Brasstown, NC.
What some folks may not know is that the 47-year-old racer extraordinaire once took his talents off the dirt to compete on the massive Talladega Super Speedway in an ARCA Menard’s Series event. Through his relationship with longtime friend and former NASCAR champion Bill Elliott, Cook landed a ride in the 2004 Food World 300 on the 2.66-mile track located in eastern Alabama.
After completing a short stint in a pavement driving school at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida, the ‘Tarheel Tiger’ was approved for competition by ARCA officials. In his initial attempt at a start, Cook was deprived of the opportunity to take the green flag at Michigan International Speedway by a practice mishap.
“Bill was driving for Ray Evernham and Dodge had that driver development program going on,” Cook explained in an interview with InsideCircleTrack.com. “There had been some talk about it but nothing really concrete. I had to go to a school before ARCA would let me run so I went and done that. When I left the school I went to Kentucky Speedway and made some laps and we got to go to Michigan. We were doing good up there but then we crashed during the final round of practice so I thought we were sort of done at that point.”
In reality, the Talladega start came as a bit of a surprise to the driver himself.
“Then fast forward a month or so later, whenever Talladega was after Michigan, and I didn’t know it but Gary Winger told me it was in the Atlanta newspaper that I was going to run the ARCA race at Talladega,” Cook said with a laugh. “I found a copy, and sure enough, it was in there. I called Bill and said ‘You didn’t tell me about this’ and he said ‘You’ll do it, won’t you?’ and I said that I would.”
Cook recalled an encounter with veteran racer Ken Schrader in the Talladega garage following an ARCA practice session. The dirt racer explained to the NASCAR star that he was having trouble seeing beyond the nose of his own car while riding in the draft.
“At that time the ARCA Series had a big spoiler on the back of the cars and when you were tucked up under somebody all you could literally see was the rear spoiler of the car in front of you. I was going through the garage area and Schrader asked me what I thought about it and I told him how different it was and how I couldn’t see. He said ‘Well, you’re either going to wreck or you’re not so it don’t matter whether you can see it or not’.”
When it came time to race, there was one significant issue that had not yet been covered. While Cook had raced in hundreds of feature events up to that moment, he had never had to do a live pit stop before. His training came very much on the fly.
“I had never done any of that,” Cook recalled. “It was a challenge to get to do it, it was an experience. I remember they were giving us the one-to-go signal coming off turn four and Bill started explaining the pit stop to me on the radio. We hadn’t practiced or done anything. I got the explanation of how to do pit stops on that lap before the green. I guess it was lucky that it was a two-and-a-half mile pace lap.”
The crew had prepared his car with the knowledge that their driver had never raced in these type of conditions before. However, a late-race pit stop allowed him to move forward during the closing laps.
“I figured out that they had the car set up so tight that I couldn’t get in trouble so we pretty much ran all day between 15th and 20th,” he remembered. “But on the last pit stop they didn’t give me any tires so when we went back out for the final part of the race on the tires we had run for a while and it freed the car up which made us go faster. Then we were able to drive up to eighth at the end.”
When asked if the ever looming threat of the “Big One” weighed on his mind, Cook explained that his experience as a racer paid dividends.
“There was one point when I remember we were going through tri-oval and they were three-wide in front of me and I was in the middle of another three-wide row directly behind them,” he said. “All three cars in front of me had yellow stripes on the rear bumper(indicating the rookie status of those drivers) and I knew mine had a yellow stripe. I figured four yellow stripes out of the six cars can’t be good so I backed out a little bit, and sure enough, they all crashed a lap or two later.”
So would Cook have liked the opportunity to race more at that level or was the one time enough?
“I enjoyed it. Everybody says there’s nothing to pavement racing but I don’t believe that. There may be some physical things that are different but the mental side of it is draining. Atlanta traffic is the only thing I know to compare it to. When you go to Atlanta and you’re four-wide sitting still and then you imagine doing that for four hours at 180mph, it’s pretty hectic. I respect those guys. I would have enjoyed to go on and done it some more. I’ve got to do a lot of things in racing and that was certainly one of the things I really enjoyed.”
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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